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Davis’ daily humiliation is almost enough to make you feel sorry for him. Almost

British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis - Credit: ABACA/PA Images

You can’t have a negotiation when you have literally nothing the other side wants

It’s become clear over the course of the last twelve months (has it really only been a year? The pre-Brexit era seems like some dimly remembered Halcyon Age these days) that much as there are people who have no idea how roundabouts work (traffic variety, not playground), or who can’t distinguish between ‘you’re’ and ‘your’, there are alarming numbers of people in this country who don’t know what the word ‘negotiate’ means.

For the record (and I’m speaking in the abstract now, as I can’t imagine anyone with the intelligence and discernment to read this esteemed journal could possibly have any problem with this), ‘negotiation’ is not that thing that happens where people who want to make a Thing better get together with other people and talk and talk and talk until the Thing just mysteriously gets better. It’s not some sort of magic spell woven by political wizards, conjuring A Better Deal out of thin air through Potteresque declamations of made-up bits of cod Latin. ‘Negotiation’ is what happens when two sides, *both of whom have something to offer the other*, discuss terms of a mutually beneficial exchange of goods or services in order to arrive at an arrangement.

I emphasised the bit about having something to offer each other not only because that’s the part that seems to confuse people, but also because that’s the vital element missing from the inane spectacle currently being enacted in Brussels. What we’re seeing – what David Davis is currently stumbling his way through – is not a negotiation. It was never going to be a negotiation. It’s controlled capitulation, a signing of terms of surrender. It’s only a ‘negotiation’ for us in the way the Postdam Conference was a ‘negotiation’ for the Germans, with Berlin in ruins and the Nazi High Command dead or in prison.

You can’t have a ‘negotiation’ when you have literally nothing that the other side wants. The one thing we might have had to offer the EU – our continued membership – is, apparently, off the table for ever, so in the meantime we will take what the EU deigns to offer us and like it. Davis’s day one climbdown over the order of topics to be discussed was just the first in what will probably be two straight years of ritual daily humiliation. One almost feels sympathy. Almost.

One can’t help but ask why this is happening at all, or indeed on whose behalf Davis thinks he’s ‘negotiating’. Last anyone checked, the UK didn’t actually have a government. We’ve got a Conservative party who think they’re the government but, as discussed last week, they always do, even when they’re in opposition. We have – apparently – a Prime Minister, but she seems to have rather fallen off the planet ever since her shambolic semi-public appearance at the site of the Grenfell Tower disaster, and perhaps understandably so.

While her initial visit – scurrying in and out, avoiding any untoward questions – was met with justifiable anger, I can’t help but feel that Jeremy Corbyn got a bit too much credit for his own appearance. Unlike May, Corbyn could meet the grieving relatives and furious survivors safe in the knowledge that there’s no way any of them held him responsible for the outrage, nor looked to him for solutions (yet). He could turn up and give hugs and consolation because that’s literally all he could do. But at least he turned up.

Even if we grant that there is still a Tory government (by no means universally agreed upon) and that May is still the Prime Minister (at least she was at time of going to press), there’s another issue to address: the snap election that May called (and subsequently screwed up on every conceivable level) was, we were told, in order to ‘secure her mandate’ going into these very negotiations (I’ll continue to call them that for convenience’s sake).

The idea, apparently, was that by boosting the Conservatives’ slender majority up into the high double or even triple figures, the government would have in some way increased its bargaining power at the Brexit table. It wasn’t, of course, it was to shift the electoral calendar for pure partisan advantage and to strike while the opposition was (they thought) enfeebled, but that was the official reason given for plunging the country into unnecessary electoral hell for the second time in a year.

Now, let’s leave aside the fact that this is utter nonsense – it makes no odds whatsoever to the other 27 EU nations what the government’s parliamentary majority is, only what the UK has to offer – ie. a big fat nothing, as would still have been the case if the Tories had won all 650 seats. Let’s take the administration at its word and accept that this was indeed what they were trying to achieve, and why.

In which case, why didn’t the reverse apply?

If the election was necessary because a bigger Tory majority was required in order to go into the Brexit negotiations, doesn’t that imply that a smaller Tory majority – or indeed, no Tory majority – means that the Brexit negotiations have to be abandoned, or at the very least postponed? If a big win was needed to proceed, why are we still proceeding when that big win didn’t happen? Is this what Boris Johnson was talking about when he promised ‘We’ll have our cake and eat it’? Who was ‘we’ in that scenario, the country or the party? Again, can they even tell the difference any more?

One hopes that the rest of the EU is paying attention to the shifting political landscape in Britain. That they’re noticing the extent to which Brexit is being backed away from by even some of its staunchest erstwhile advocates, and that whatever damage is done by this sinking administration can’t be repaired by whatever replaces it.

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